In a rut for the last three months after completing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and feeling entirely unsatisfied by the experience, I found myself floundering between a host of dull games for a couple of months. I’d eventually pushed myself through yet another Tomb Raider story with some moderate satisfaction but, soon after I’d see no path forward. Trying a host of experiences that were either too low calorie, too dense, and/or generally not worth sitting with for 1-2 hours a night when it was time to relax yielded nothing worthwhile for weeks on end. I pushed through a 2018 JRPG until it became insufferable, I tried that tedious as fuck cowboy sequel everyone raves about, and I even spent a good amount of time trying to resurrect interest in a few remastered games for the sake of moving forward. Nothing. I was neither dead inside nor being hyper-critical, I just needed some fuckin’ good music to groove to while I played a game. Whaaat?! Yes, I whipped out my Super Nintendo Classic and played through about half of Castlevania IV before I realized what was missing from my own modern day video game experience was a good goddamn jam while I was playing a fun and challenging game. Appeal to my Sega Genesis-having prepubescent self from 1990 with a good modulated chiptune and I’ll wipe that game out in a week. It was inevitable that it’d end up digging through my “What looked good at E3/Pax West” list of the past three years and point a (very lazy) finger at The Messenger, which had finally landed on Playstation 4 this year.
Let’s see… who could be a more obvious mark for this game: 8-bit ninja platformer, 16-bit metroidvania, NES/Sega Genesis inspired OST, grappling, platforming, exploring, collecting, re-exploring, ability progression, snarky self-aware humor, and a time paradox with a poorly explained almost-metaphysical ending? Well, not all of that fits but I’d seen trailers and the first hour of gameplay for The Messenger enough to know that it was the kind of game that’d stick with me if I stuck with it. The ‘gimmick’ (or ‘the hook’) is probably better experienced than explained but I’ll do my best: The Messenger begins as an 8-bit game that for all intensive purposes resembles a widescreen, ultra-colorful, and much easier approximation of Ninja Gaiden III but with a fantasy theme rather than a Beverly Hills Ninja vibe. As you progress it goes from a linear platformer towards an apex in difficulty that results in… Time travel several hundred years in the future (uh, past?) and this is significant because it becomes an approximation of a 16-bit action platformer (‘metroidvania’) that is again much more colorful and animated than any classic 16-bit game (excepting some very late ’95 stuff that would’ve been ported to Saturn and never seen in North America.) Yes, you’re going to have re-traverse the entire game at least once more and backtrack to some areas several times but these areas are differently accessible and entirely changed as you switch between time using designate portals. These pockets appear in levels and allow for shifts between time and eventually play a part in larger platforming puzzles alongside the discovery of several new areas. In some ways you’re re-experiencing the first part of the game with full capabilities, better skills, and at the same time you’re discovering a new second half of the game that is interspersed within previously inaccessible areas. The sense of exploration and challenging platforming required to progress is intensely satisfying and a great motivation to take on everything the game has to offer.
From the moment you gain control of The Messenger you’re tasked with a series of fundamental skills that must be mastered within the game’s generously slow upward ramping difficult. If there is one mechanic that I can commend to high hell it is the ability to jump again anytime you’ve struck an enemy, a projectile (provided you have that skill) and/or a lantern. It isn’t immediately evident but you’ll have to figure your way through some complex puzzle-platforming challenges that require you to use each ability with precise timing and above all else you won’t finish this game if you don’t spend some time getting comfortable with ‘hovering’, using a lantern to continue to jump and slash with precise timing to stay airborn and carefully control your movement/momentum. Learning the modulate this second jump is key to beating the more difficult bosses and getting all of the collectibles in the game. Don’t care about collectibles? Oh… But you get a cool boomerang throwing star… Throw in abilities that allow you to run on water, grapple, glide, and your dexterity will be tested as a completionist.
Where I truly connected with this game was the ‘metroidvania’ aspect that kicks in once you’v traveled in time and given the rundown on what comes next. The game soon gives you a map and you’re told to go revisit areas after being given clues that are reasonably vague; “Go to the frozen peak, an old friend awaits” — That sort of thing. The only thing that I’d found difficult to figure out during my playthrough involved getting a light to navigate a pitch-black area needed to progress. I probably wasted 2-3 hours zipping through each area dumbly wandering around whereas you could just pay 300 currency (time crystals) for a ‘hint’ that puts a marker on your map as to where to go. The Messenger provides plentiful currency and you’re given a pretty easy to complete skill tree that should be full complete well before you’ve finished the game. Although I would suggest grinding out the first set of skills the final part of the skill tree that opens up after you’ve traveled time isn’t a huge priority unless you want the easiest possible path forward. By the time I had finished the game and started the DLC I’d died about 350 times and lost about 2000 time crystals doing so, but I had a surplus of 5700+ time crystals after easily completing the skill tree and getting all collectibles and doing various side-quests. At that point the currency system is trivial because it doesn’t deter trial by death later in the game and it might have made more sense to just allow the loss of progress to be annoying enough. Save areas are so plentiful that the only time I really felt deaths were a big deal came during hard to reach platforming sections that lead to collectibles.
Beyond the relatively pointless currency that doesn’t give you anything worthwhile to buy and a ‘death toll’ system that serves to insult you with a “Hah, you died” message each time you mess up the experience of playing The Messenger is relatively flawless. Controls are near perfect where the only hitches I had came with using the Playstation 4’s d-pad to jump from one wall to another would often not register. Graphics, load times, music, etc. everything goes off without a hitch and I never had a single crash or bug across nearly 16 hours of gameplay. Starting to sound like the perfect game, eh? Nope and honestly not even close because of the self-aware writing that doesn’t necessarily break the third wall but definitely makes a point of “Yep, this is a video game. LOL videogames!” and a generally trite sense of character where it might’ve benefited the replayability of the game to have a somewhat serious dialogue running at some point. There is this sense of “Who cares? Because video games!” attitude to the writing that makes all characters have a similar voice. The lore is less funny and referential than the writer thought it was, at least. This is common in video game writing and I can look past it as I did with Timespinner but man, why not have just one goofy character and not ALL goofy fucking snark doofus the entire game? Keep your coy self-aware dork-ass nonsense out of my ninja time traveler game.
Picking up The Messenger felt good from start to finish and though the 8-bit soundtrack has its grating quirks the chip-tunes you’re treated to on the first half of the soundtrack are distinct, memorable, and completely engaging. The sample set appears quite a bit more lush and dynamic than an actual NES or Master System but only enough to match the generally upgraded take on 8-bit that The Messenger is for the first several hours. Where things really begin to blow my mind comes with the change to the 16-bit soundtrack that appears closely modeled off of the sort of music traditionally made with the Yamaha YM2612 FM chip most notably used on the Sega Genesis. It isn’t 1-to-1 in terms of recreating that sound but the tricks for modulation and guitar solo-esque runs puts this soundtrack in the league of video game soundtracks like Thunder Force III and some of the old Konami games from that same era. Rainbowdragoneyes can really take a bow at this point because it is his finest work to date. The sound design goes a few extra steps beyond an excellent soundtrack and you’ll find that diving underwater muffles the music, switching time swaps the soundtracks without a second of delay and some of the more timing based platforming puzzles manage to match up with the timing of the music in a few cases. By the time I had beaten this game I’d had most every melody stuck in my head at some time, particularly the 16-bit version of the shopkeeper theme.
It looks great, it plays great, the concept of shifting between graphic styles to represent time travel is brilliant, the soundtrack is incredible and I paid about a dollar per hour of entertainment: The Messenger hasn’t just entertained me for a few weeks but it managed to revive my interest in video games after a little over two months of complete disinterest. That’d be my recommendation for the game, actually, that it was so much fun to play that I didn’t end up ditching a hobby most folks say I should have kicked when I was a teenager. Fuck them, and go play this game. I’ve additionally completed the free summer themed DLC ‘Picnic Panic’ which ramps up the complexity of platforming and minor logic puzzles along with providing a handful of much more challenging bosses. The Tiki boss took at least 30 tries, for example. With the extra 3-5 hours of free DLC and about 15 hours for the main game there is so much more to The Messenger than I could get to in under two thousand words.
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